A Walk in Oaxaca

This is the story of how we took a walk in Oaxaca and went to the zócalo, or city square, for a shoe shine.

We were there for Christmas with friends and a winter holiday. Flying from the Ann Arbor ‘peace movement’ with its silent [sic] vigils and its Zionist virus we were aching for a change of scene, weather, and political outlook. There were three of us, and we were bearing gifts: Michaela, my partner, carrying medicines, Riley, a sophomore in high school, our daughter, bringing an abundance of expectancy, and me, historian, bringing a copy of my study of the commons and Magna Carta. We wanted somehow to step into another possible world, healthy, hopeful, and chartered.

Our bags were misplaced or lost in Texas. Befriending a Mexican American similarly bereft in the Mexico City airport when he learned where we were going he praised the food of Oaxaca immediately. And so it was: hot chocolate, mole, corn bread, tomales, tlayudas. Got to remember this. Nothing’ll get you to Right here! Now! quicker than the taste buds. Vanilla and chocolate are Oaxaca’s gifts to the planet’s aromatic olfactory system. (Only the chapulins, or fried grasshopper did we save for another time.)

The Christmas crèches were all over, in the cathedral, in the cafeteria, in the store window, in an upstairs lobby of the hotel. All over town the manger was bare: ain’t no room at the hotel. Not until Christmas Eve did they put the baby Jesus in. The three wise men from the east, including Balthazar, the African king, were often prominent. Birth was certainly the theme, especially after visiting Frida Kahlo’s museum in Coyoacán. She was looking for a miracle too, but didn’t find it in the medicine offered by the Henry Ford hospital up in Detroit, which her paintings depict as a series of ghastly machines. How beautiful is her museum, how intimate the spaces, and what a great cup of coffee served in the café! By contrast Trotsky’s house around the corner was all books, dark, serious, and nothing to drink. It spoke of exile and death of course. Yet he too was engaged in a labor of birth, to bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old!

The Aztecs danced at dusk in the huge zócalo, or square, of Mexico City, to the four directions. The skyline was ominous with Church and State, for it was filled on one side with the National Palace and on the adjacent side with the immense and brooding façade of the baroque cathedral. We went to the Templo Mayor, excavated in 1978, buried almost directly underneath the cathedral, one pile of rocks on top of another, to learn that it was “the center of the universe. In the museum we saw statuettes from long ago supposed to play a role in fecundity and the underworld. Those fighting for a new birth of social life fled Oaxaca or were driven into hiding or prison after ‘the night of hyenas,’ 25 November 2006, when the helicopters, plain clothes police, and death squads ran rampant.

We climbed for a picnic in the trees overlooking the valley in which the city of Oaxaca sprawls and saw that it is surrounded by hills and behind them mountains, each capped by ancient temples or cities that are either excavated, like Monte Albán, or waiting for excavation. We enjoyed our repast playing hide-and-seek with the children next to a milpa of ‘three sisters’, corn, squash, and beans.

How ashamed I was in my Hollywood cynicism on first beholding Monte Albán where I exclaimed, “a lost civilization.” Juan Peralta Hernández, our guide, simply replied, it is not lost, and giggled. He carried a volume of Subcommandante Marcos’s letters under his arm. Truly the layers of the onion are many, and as the gringo peels away at the onion, it is not without tears, for in his pride he does not like to admit that his mind too has been colonized. The Tourist Bureau provides a brochure available in the empty hotels in which you can read this example of history inverted: “On July 7, 1563, by an ordinance of the Viceroy Luis de Velasco, the lands near the Noria and Cinco Señores ranches were given to the Indian people. Tell this to Juan Peralta Hernández.

We presented gifts to the magnificent Gustavo Esteva, the non-institutionalized intellectual at the Universidad de la Tierra. Here’s how he explained the situation. Oaxaca is next to Chiapas. Fifteen indigenous groups with fifteen different languages inhabit the state of Oaxaca. The indigenous people of Chiapas are recent denizens of the forests while in Oaxaca they have been there for centuries. There are three overlapping communal systems in the municipalities: first, there are the ‘usages and customs’ of mutual obligations which comprise the radical democracy (so well described by Doug Lummis); second, there is the commons of land and water management consisting formerly of the village ejido and currently of the common lands of 85% of the state; and third, there is the judicial system whose principle of administration is not revenge but compensation and whose operating rule is consolation not punishment. The APPO had begun discussions on how to extend these principles to the whole state. Neither money nor the machine is the starting point of discussion but social relations. He gave us his encouraging tract Celebration of Zapatismo (Ediciones ¡Basta! 2006).

I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the story of a “whisky priest hunted by the authorities. Full of angst, sin, and the ‘god that failed’, its mood of ascetic suffering hardly more reliable than the swollen tongue of D.H. Lawrence. The racism is not far beneath the surface in utter detestation of Indians. Oddly, we did meet an Englishman, in Ocotlán, from an English textile town. He was owner, foreman, shipping agent of a textile firm, and proudly showed us his equipment for spinning, carding, and what not. “Just feel the quality of this roving! he urged us. These were the machines that started the industrial revolution in England, and here they were in the state of Oaxaca whirring eternally on, a young woman standing atop her boxes to tend it the better, another machine attended to by a boy. Captain Ludd, I thought, whither art thou?

I was looking for APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. I wondered about the folkmotes, I wondered about the jury, I wondered how horizontal forms of organizing were becoming manifested. I was humbled by the respect paid to teachers, the maestros. Silence greeted us, just as freshly painted walls covered the revolutionary graffiti which only a few weeks earlier had proudly adorned the city walls with hopeful, generous affirmations.

We arrived in time for La Noche de Rábanos, or the Night of the Radishes. Walking down the pedestrian street to the main zócalo lines of riot police lounged nervously in the shadows. We wiggled through the mobile obstructions placed by the police. The cathedral stone from local quarries is green. The plaza was too until Ulises, the hated governor, tore it up. He uprooted trees too, a type of laurel, I think, which centuries ago was brought from India, bay leaves, shade-giving. His corruptions are supposed to be in sync with attracting tourism. The clamor of the market was without the jingle of the tourist coin or the whisper of bills whisked quickly from the wallet. The horrid man made an appearance earlier in the evening among the radish artists.

We parked ourselves on a bench to enjoy the night scene. The cast-iron park benches were elaborately adorned; their comfortable backs pointed to a zenith in a rendering of the bonnet rouge, that ancient cap of liberty worn by slaves in ancient Rome on their manumission. In the middle of the square was a bandstand and in the bandstand a chorus singing out the familiar carols of Holy Nativity concerning the birth of the messiah. It struck me as entirely tasteful and pre-Hollywood and certainly as respectable as any bourgeois, high or low, could want. On two sides of the zócalo were the tables with the radish exhibits generally scenes from the holy night. Artists were busy explaining their artwork to judges and on-lookers or spraying it with water before the vegetable shriveled up. Surrounded by the shady figures of state repression, somehow we found ourselves admiring among all the holy radish figures a radish rendering of a drunk.

Again, the tourist brochure, “It is known, through the oral record, that the Dominican friars and others taught the indigenous Nabori Indian groups (Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mexica Indians) who served in the citizens’ homes, how to cultivate flowers and vegetables. Brazen, eh? It is the old story. Were there no flowers and vegetables before the arrival of the Europeans? If you trust the authority of the Columbia Encyclopedia that the radish with its pungent root was indeed brought by Spaniards in the 16th century, you also learn that they got it from Chinese transplantations.

Returning we passed the cathedral Santo Domingo and its magnificent façade looking down upon rows of blue agave plants in the plaza in front cooling the scene. Across from it is the Instituto de Artes Gráficas, the beautiful library given to the people by Francisco Toledo. We availed ourselves of his generosity by consulting a sumptuous, huge, box-like book containing copies of the unbound studies of Guernica that Picasso made after May Day 1938. Oh, how May Day 2006 rang in my ears, ¡Si se puede! We learned that four million Oaxaqueños live outside the state of Oaxaca, many in California, many in New York.

Despite the terrible Night of the Hyenas aspiration showed itself a month later in art, music, photos, architecture, CDs, and DVDs. An artist named Ima sold beautiful paintings of the movement of APPO led by the teachers. We wanted to see the radishes of the APPO. The area across from Santo Domingo was packed with people of all ages. A balladeer sung out songs recounting the history of the struggle. A woman speaking Zapotec read out a speech. Distinguished by their deep red color and thick skin, some are almost two feet long and can weigh six and a half pounds. Red radishes were carved into helicopters at either end of the exhibit area, fantastic examples of craft, realistic, horrifying and amusing all at once. In the middle was a radish corpse, made entirely of the white portion of the root. There it was lying flat, arms splayed, head akimbo, legs spread-eagled. It was entitled “The Massacre of Oaxaca. If not parallel to the massacre of the holy innocents, the people were carving radishes, at the root of things, to remember Herod, if not the recent out-heroding by the death squads.

Fraught with tension, the atmosphere gave the foreign tourist a glimpse beneath the repression, and we could sense the joy of struggle, the determination, and the dignity. Brad Will was never far from our thoughts. His murder at the hands of a government assassin last October was a deliberate insult, a measured provocation, to the planetary movement which has backed the indigenous struggles for the commons. Partly in his honor we traveled to Oaxaca not only as tourists but as students, and not only as students but as pilgrims.

Our friend chose a café for us one morning to explain the five lessons he learned from the six months’ insurgency. Here I cannot do justice to the subtlety of his description or the pain of his recollection but I must mention his points. First, for most people life goes on as usual during the uprising, only in retrospect do events seem concentrated as if at the bottom on a test-tube. Second, police are completely unnecessary, and violent crime fell to its lowest in decades. Third, armed struggle in the case of mass mobilization plays into the logic of the state; twice APPO decreed that its supporters need not wear face masks. Fourth, independent media, particularly the radio, was essential to communication, to morale, to discussion. Bertha, the doctor from ’68, was the voice of the movement keeping it calm, determined, non-violent. Fifth, everyone’s position becomes clear as people take a stand.

Returning to Mexico City, the bus curving double switch-backs over steep gorges in the Sierre Madre, we found our hotel and repaired to the zócalo on the last day of a year which had seen such constitutional conflict played out on that very square. It was dusk, and suddenly a battalion (or whatever?) of soldiers came running double-time out of the presidential palace, followed by drums and bugles, to conduct the ceremony of drawing down the flag. Militarism seemed the order of the day. The keen observer might discern signs of hope in those recruits who did not keep time, or whose semi-automatic weapon hung a few degrees off the regimented oblique line across the shoulder. Will these boys bring in the flag without a single strand of the sacred fabric touching the common ground, the dirty earth?

While that itty-bitty drama was unfolding I turned to weightier matters. Riley had her hair braided with threads dyed in a spectrum of pastels by an artist on the square, I enjoyed chatting with the APPO compesinos in our respective languages, and Michaela had her rust red walking boots shined. Flying north amid cancelled flights and delays we could only dream again that another world is possible starting with A People’s Assembly of the Great Lakes. Our friends with their photos, painting, music, and cooking gave us a holiday, and a precious message.

We missed the ahuehuetl tree, a giant cypress, said to be the oldest living thing in all of the Americas. Next time. Meanwhile still murmuring in my ear was the scrap from the unfinished air,

taking a walka
in Oaxaca
to the zócalo
for a shine.

Post Script

Since returning I have received a message from our friend in Oaxaca who writes,

“On the Three Kings Day gifting organized by APPO was met by the presence of nearly 500 riot troops … determined to prevent people from delivering gifts destined for the children of the movement’s prisoners. This in contrast to the heavily publicized corporate and state gifting done in the zocalo and other shopping centers. In spite of it all, thousands brought gifts and stacked them up in the middle of the road almost forming a mountain beside the helmeted men.”

Meanwhile, here in Ann Arbor I can say that my brogues have maintained their shine against the downpour that greeted us ‘Liberty Street Agitators,’ when every day of the working week led by Libby Hunter we call for Troops Home and Impeachment of Bush, rain or shine.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com


Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com